Updated at: 01/09/2013 6:07 PM
By DAMIAN PACHTER
(AP) MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina - An Argentine naval ship detained for more than two months in Ghana because of a billion-dollar international debt dispute returned home to a triumphant welcome Wednesday.
Thousands of Argentine government sympathizers traveled to the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the capital, to celebrate the return of the ARA Libertad.
Crowds flooded the streets of Mar del Plata braving the Southern Hemisphere’s scorching temperatures to reach the port and catch a first look of the white-flagged tall ship.
When the vessel docked after its long journey, they broke into cheers and claps, many waving Argentine flags and snapping pictures with cameras. Three planes soared over the ship’s masts spewing smoke in the white and blue colors of the Argentine flag.
President Cristina Fernandez arrived two hours later in a helicopter that landed on the ship. She greeted the sailors and called the Libertad a symbol of Argentina’s sovereignty and hailed its return as a victory.
"Ladies and gentlemen, officers from the Libertad ship, welcome to the homeland!" Fernandez said in a nationally televised speech.
"You’re witnessing what might come to symbolize the unlimited defense of Argentina’s rights and the respect of its sovereignty."
Ghana courts ordered the ship held in October on a claim by a Cayman Islands-based hedge fund, NML Capital Ltd. Its owner, American billionaire Paul Singer, leads a group demanding payment in full, plus interest _ about $350 million _ for dollar-based Argentine bonds bought at fire-sale prices after Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic collapse forced a sharp devaluation of its currency.
The conflict over the ship reached an especially tense moment in November when Argentine sailors brandished weapons to block Ghanaian officials from moving the vessel to a less busy dock.
The United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ordered the ship’s release last month after Argentina argued that warships are immune from seizure.
"I came to join our president in this important moment for all Argentines," said Andrea Zapata, 43, a teacher from Buenos Aires province. "It’s not only important for those who support her political project but also because the Libertad ship is a symbol of our country and something all Argentines must defend from those who want to impose their own interests."
Argentina, currently Latin America’s third-biggest economy, engaged in the biggest sovereign debt default in history a decade ago. The government has restructured about 92 percent of its world record $95 billion debt default since then.
But Fernandez refuses to pay the holdouts, calling NML Capital and others "vulture funds" for buying debt for pennies on the U.S. dollar in 2002, when Argentina’s economy was in its worst crisis, and now trying to collect in full.
The fiery, center-left leader says it was their loss for refusing two opportunities to swap defaulted bonds for new, less valuable bonds that the state has reliably paid since 2005.
"There were vultures there and here there were buzzard caws," Fernandez said at the ceremony, which ended with fireworks. "But we didn’t listen to any of them. We listened to our people."
Members of the political opposition called the welcoming ceremony an effort to boost support for Fernandez at a time when Argentines are frustrated by high inflation, violent crime, allegations of high-profile corruption, and government currency controls that make it difficult to buy dollars.
Critics say Argentines were humiliated by the government’s failure to foresee that the ship would be seized in Ghana and other ports where it docked during training exercises.
Anti-government activists handed out fliers in Mar del Plata encouraging people to join a pot-banging protest in the evening. "Stop the insecurity, the corruption and inflation for an independent justice," the fliers read.
Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)